How Teams Qualify for the Champions League in Association Football

The Champions League is the biggest club competition in Europe

AFC Champions League 2017 - Preliminary Stage - Kitchee SC (HKG) vs Hanoi FC (VIE)
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Teams that want to get into the prestigious Champions League, the annual European continental club football competition, have to either qualify or meet certain standards. The rules are set by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA).

The UEFA uses a coefficient system to decide how many teams from each country gain entry into the group stages and how many must go through Champions League qualifying.

Automatic Entry

The teams that occupy the top three league places in the countries ranked first through third in UEFA competition gain automatic entry into the group stages for the following season’s Champions League competition. The first- and second-place teams in the countries ranked fourth through sixth also gain automatic entry, as do the champions in the countries ranked seventh through 12th. The Champions League holders automatically get the chance to defend their title in the following season’s competition.

A country’s UEFA coefficient ranking is decided by how well its teams have been doing in Europe over the previous five years. The club coefficient is determined by the results of a club in European club competition in the last five seasons and the league coefficient.

For teams that do not make it into the competition automatically, there are two qualifying routes, the Champions Route and the League Route.

Champions Route

The first qualifying round sees the champions of the countries ranked 50th to 53rd in UEFA competition play two two-legged ties. The two winners of those ties progress to the second qualifying round where they are joined by the champions of the 32 countries ranked 17th to 49th (except Liechtenstein).

The victorious sides from those 17 ties join the champions from the countries ranked 14th to 16th in the third qualifying round. The winners of these 10 ties go through to the playoff round. The winners of these five ties, which take place on a home-and-away basis, reach the group stages of the Champions League.

League Route

The third-placed team from the sixth-ranked member association starts in the third qualifying round alongside the runners-up from the associations ranked seventh to 15th.

The winners of these five ties go through to the playoff round, where they are joined by the fourth-placed teams from the member associations ranked first through third, and the third-placed sides from the associations ranked fourth and fifth. The teams that emerge victorious from these five ties go through to the group stages of the Champions League.

Other Considerations

As if the Champions League rules for qualifying weren't complicated enough, there are a few more considerations.

  • Teams in the Champions Route cannot meet those in the League Route.
  • Teams that lose in the third qualifying round go into the Europa League playoffs.
  • The five teams that lose in the Champions League playoff round enter the Europa League group stages.
  • Teams that finish third in each of the Champions League groups go into the Europa League round of 32.